Once to die and after this comes judgment (Hebrews 9:27)

PREFACE: Another of a series of posts offering my own perspective on the issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. NOTE: I have edited the post from yesterday, “Some trust in chariots (Psalm 20:6-9)” because some of the wording needed to be changed. rmb

An interesting phenomenon has occurred in the last year and a half. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the threat of sudden, random death onto the screens of people all over the globe. When it first appeared in March of last year, the reports were that COVID only affected the aged and the infirm, but as the pandemic has raged and morphed, the threat of getting a severe case has gradually trickled down the age ranges until now everyone of any age is a potential victim. And death may result, whether you are nineteen or ninety. COVID is no respecter of age. Nor does COVID seem to discriminate on the basis of physical health. There is growing evidence that physical fitness poses no barrier to COVID. And death may result, whether you are a physical specimen or a couch potato.

A few days ago, it was announced that the COVID pandemic is now officially the deadliest pandemic in US history, surpassing the so-called Spanish flu of 1918. To date 676,000 Americans have entered eternity as a result of COVID-19. Yes, there is no question about it: death may result from COVID.

So, how should we, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, respond to these realities? I suggest that we address these realities with the truths of the gospel.

THE TRUTH ABOUT DEATH

COVID has brought to many people an awareness of death, and an awareness of their own possible death, which has previously been absent. Of course, death is not new. Ever since Adam ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, death has been a reality on this planet. Every person who has ever been born either has already experienced death or will experience death. Death hangs over the head of every person living, and death may come at any moment. There is no negotiation. There is never a redo. There is no reversal. Death comes with stunning finality, and we humans are helpless before it. And death is a universal problem.

Human beings are unique among all the animals on earth in two ways related to death: First, humans are the only animals who know they are going to die; and second, humans are the only animals who will be judged by God because of their sin. Hebrews 9:27 puts it well:

And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment

It is appointed for men to die. God told Adam, “The day you eat of it (forbidden fruit) you shall surely die.” Thus, death entered the world (Romans 5:12), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). So, it is appointed by God for men to die. There is a day appointed for me and for you when we will die.

But the most terrifying thing about death is not the experience of death itself, but the truth that after death comes judgment. All of us must stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10). All unbelievers will stand before the blazing holiness of God Almighty and will be condemned for their sins (Revelation 20:15). This is why the unbeliever, whether they admit it or not, is frightened of death. They are frightened because, in their soul, they know that God’s judgment awaits.

AWARENESS OF DEATH

I mentioned before that COVID has brought many people to an awareness of the possibility of their own death. So, it is not death itself that is new, but it is the awareness of their own death that is new. Through the COVID pandemic, millions have seen men and women just like them dying of COVID and death has become part of everyday conversation. My awareness of my own possible death from COVID goes way up when I see a friend or a church member or a relative dying of the disease. What does the gospel have to say to those who are afraid of death and afraid of the coming judgment?

JESUS CHRIST HAS CONQUERED DEATH

So COVID threatens us with physical death, but the truth of the gospel declares that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. Jesus has conquered death by His glorious resurrection, and now the follower of Jesus has no need to fear death. Since Jesus Christ has risen from dead, all those who are in Christ will also rise from the dead in the final Resurrection. The Bible declares this over and over again:

25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” – John 11:25-26

Jesus promises resurrection and eternal life to all who believe in Him. COVID cannot threaten me because Jesus has given me His promises.

53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

All believers must put on imperishable immortality. The Christian is promised a resurrection, so death has lost its victory and its sting.

21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. – Philippians 1:21

The apostle Paul takes this idea into the most practical of places. Since faith in Jesus Christ has guaranteed a resurrection, the believer can live fully for Christ and then will gain heaven when they die. COVID has nothing to say to a life lived for Christ in that way.

So, the believer in Jesus can respond to the threat of death from COVID by simply declaring, “Because of my faith in Jesus Christ, I have no fear of death. My Savior has conquered the grave and risen from the dead, and in the end, I will also be glorified. So, I have no fear of COVID-19.” This, in my opinion, is the faithful response to the threat of this pandemic.

But I think there is still more that we can do with the threat of COVID.

AN OPPORTUNITY TO OFFER THE GOSPEL

As more and more become aware of their mortality and of the proximity of their own death, and as perhaps some we know or encounter even draw near to that awesome moment when life gives way to eternity, I am convinced that believers must warn the perishing of their peril and urge them to come to Christ before it is too late.

Is it possible that the Lord is using the deaths of this pandemic and the increased awareness of our own inevitable death to open a door for those who will tell the lost about the reality of the final Judgment so they will turn to Christ? In Ezekiel 33:1-10 we read the story of the watchman. The LORD tells the prophet that a watchman was appointed to send the alarm if he saw the sword of destruction coming upon the city so the city would be warned and get to safety. Then the LORD says, “But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet and the people are not warned, and a sword comes and takes a person from them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood I will require from the watchman’s hand” (Ezekiel 33:6). The LORD is saying that, because the watchman did not warn about the coming sword, he is responsible for the deaths in the city.

How does this apply to the believer during the COVID pandemic? We are the watchmen who have been appointed to warn of the coming Judgment. We are the ones who know that there is a sword coming, ultimately the double-edged sword coming out of the mouth of the Lord Jesus when He returns to judge the earth (Revelation 19:11-16). We have been appointed as the witnesses of the Lord Jesus (Acts 1:8), and if we do not warn about the coming judgment, the people will still perish in their sins, but we also will have to give an account for why we were silent. The point is that COVID-19 has made people, all people, much more aware about the possibility of death. That is an opportunity for us, for we know Him who has conquered death. We know Him who has removed our fear of death. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11). We know that the Judgment will be terrifying, and we know how those who are now under judgment can be set free. Let’s be vocal and bold in proclaiming Jesus to the lost.

Warnings of the watchman (Ezekiel 33:1-7)

BACKGROUND OF THE PASSAGE

The prophet Ezekiel had been appointed by the LORD to be a watchman for the house of Israel (Ezekiel 33:7). The word of the LORD had come to the prophet and had described for him the circumstances that demanded a watchman for the people and what the obligations were for this person.

The people needed a watchman because there was an imminent danger of destruction. There was a sword from the LORD coming upon the land and the watchman was appointed to blow the trumpet and warn the people so that they had an opportunity to escape. Sounds simple enough, right? But there was a catch. If for any reason the appointed watchman did not blow the trumpet and warn the people, the sword would certainly take a person away, “but his blood I (the LORD) will require from the watchman’s hand (33:6).”

Clearly, when the LORD appointed a watchman for the people, He expected the watchman to blow the trumpet at the appearance of the approaching sword. Things did not go well for the silent watchman.

PARALLELS BETWEEN THE WATCHMAN AND THE WITNESS

While at first glance this story of watchmen and trumpets and swords may seem far removed from our own experience, when seen through the lens of the gospel, the picture is strikingly relevant. Let’s make some word substitutions.

Sword = God’s Judgment                    Trumpet = Gospel

Blow the trumpet = Proclaim the gospel

Take warning = Believe the gospel     Delivers his life = Is saved

Ignores the warning + Does not respond to the gospel

Sword takes him away = Perishes forever in hell

THE KEY QUESTION: WHO IS THE WATCHMAN?

The critical question in this parallel is, “Who is the watchman?” Is the watchman every believer, or is the watchman one of a small subset of all believers? We need to explore this question to be sure that our blood is not being required because of our silence.

It is possible that “the watchman” is a special Christian who has been set apart by God for this special task of proclaiming the gospel. It is possible that the large majority of believers are not obligated to communicate the good news to the lost at all but are free to be silent about the terrifying peril facing the unsaved and to be silent about the salvation that is promised to all those who will believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is possible that the large majority can be silent while a small minority bears all the obligation to proclaim. I suppose it is possible that is the case, but there are several things that make me nervous about that.

One thing that bothers me about the idea that a special, select group of believers shoulders the responsibility for proclaiming the gospel to the lost is that I cannot find that in the New Testament. Jesus’ statement, “You shall be My witnesses,” is for all those who have received the Holy Spirit, not just for an elite subgroup. The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is given to every member of the church, not to just a handful of specially gifted people. If I accept that I am a member of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9),” then I must also perform the duty of proclaiming His excellencies. If there is a special group of people who serve as New Testament “watchmen,” I need to know who they are and how they are identified to be sure that I am not unknowingly among them.

But there are other things that cause me concern. Jesus said, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of man (Matthew 4:19).” That sounds like if I do the one, I also do the other. If I follow, I also fish. It sounds like all followers, fish for men, not just a select few. Doesn’t it?

Paul wrote, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making His appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5:20).” But aren’t all believers to be ambassadors to the lost?

In that same chapter, Paul also says, “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men (2 Cor. 5:11).” Surely all believers know the fear of the Lord’s judgment. So, all believers should be involved in persuading people that the sword of God’s judgment is poised above all those who have not fled for refuge to the Lord Jesus.

Bottom line is that the Bible teaches we are all the Lord’s watchmen and, therefore, we do not get a pass. In fact, we read that there is a consequence that flows from our silence. Notice that if Ezekiel had been silent, the blood of those who perished on his watch would have been required from Ezekiel’s hand. I am not sure what the phrase “blood required from your hand” means, but I do know that I do not want to find out.

Ezekiel was appointed a watchman to blow the trumpet and warn the people of the coming sword. In the same way, we, as followers of the Lord Jesus, have been called out of darkness to let our light shine (Matthew 5:16). The Lord has bought us at the price of His own blood, and He has given each of us a huge sack of seed. It is written, “The sower went out to sow (Matthew 13:3).” And what are we to sow? We are to scatter the seed of the gospel everywhere and everyday so that the world may know of Jesus and so “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14).”

So, you and I are “the watchman.” We see that there is a judgment coming and that there is only one means of escape. “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12).” So, we blow the trumpet of the gospel so that men and women may find refuge in Jesus.

SDG                 rmb                 6/7/2021         #413